If this is a sign of things to come, one can expect even more from the People's Republic of China (PRC) when (and not "if") it builds the military muscle to project and sustain its naval presence in the South China Sea (SCS).
At the current state of play, China's ADIZ can be monitored using its mainland air defence assets and naval units maintaining a radar picket offshore.
Naval aviation is confined to shipborne helicopters or mainland-based warplanes whose operational radii are tethered to their air-to-air refuelling capability or internal fuel and drop tanks.
Their sole aircraft carrier, Liaoning, is more a prop, a showpiece that makes an impressive backdrop for photo shoots involving carrier-borne fighters or PLAN heavy units. That single training carrier, devoid of an established concept of operations grounded on sound naval doctrine, operating with no organic AEW&C aircraft, sailing without the security of an outer perimeter of light forces, submarines and an inner ring of heavy naval units, no UNREP support ships worth talking about, is not a serious contender should she be pitted against present day naval forces in the region.
PRC naval aviation in 2030
But telescope China's military capabilities 15 years forward, sustained at the current growth trajectory, and one is likely to count fully operational two aircraft carriers that can project China's military ambitions closer to our neighbourhood.
By 2030, the ruffled feathers over the ADIZ would have long accepted the zone as status quo.
By 2030, regional analysts would have been desensitised to years of watching China's air and naval forces operate in the South China Sea.
That may pave the way for China to assert a stronger presence in the neighbourhood, using its SCS islets as anchor points and the aircraft carriers as patches of sovereign Chinese territory from which it can generate and sustain naval air cover.
Having China declare and secure territorial waters around South China Sea islets would change the game for defence planners so used to watching what the neighbours are up to. Emboldened by the ADIZ experience acquired in 2013, it would be interesting to theorise if they would pull a similar gig in the SCS once they have the military muscle to back words with deed.
All the present-day talk about military options against China and analysis of how Red China is militarily weak compared to regional forces ignores two strategic realities.
First, military action against the PRC must reckon how industry would react when China is, and will continue to be, essentially the world's factory. Hitting China is unlike bombing the Ruhr during WW2. Industry magnates would have done their sums and quiet lobbying may hamstring military options, particularly when Western economic interests are at stake should things turn nasty.
Second, order of battle comparisons and us-versus-them scenarios generated by defence analysts and armchair generals from *insert your country of choice* seem to ignore the reality such tussles might see Chinese tactical nukes thrown into the equation. What then? Yes, it is mad. But many wars have stemmed from miscalculations of minor consequence snowballing into wider strategic effect (think about how the complex interplay of strategic alliances led to WW1 after Archduke Ferdinand was shot).
Dearth of analysis
Cold War calculations benefitted richly from decades of analysis which bred two/three generations of experten who devoted their lives to analysing how war across the Iron Curtain could flare. All sorts of scenarios from limited exchange on short warning, long war scenarios, proxy wars, launch on warning/launch on impact, command relationships with strategic nuclear forces, second strike capabilities and so on were studied and discussed extensively. Effects on global weather patterns were theorised (nuclear winter), movies were made and best seller novels on Cold War battles became vacation staples.
All this brain power amassed over the years made a positive and decisive contribution to deterrence. Because both sides understood the chilling costs of war. And no one was left to any doubt about the cost of miscalculation.
Compared to the Cold War, the standoff between China and its neighbours suffers from a dearth of literature which helps us get a better grasp of the situation.*
Concerns expressed in the past week about the ADIZ becoming a flashpoint probably stem from the realisation of the dreadful consequences that have resulted when one mixes nation willpower with misfired firepower.
Singapore's Foreign Minister K. Shanmugan said on 29 November'13 at the Global Outlook Forum in the lion city:"An incident can easily happen and we, the rest of the world, are to some extent hostage to what some ship captains might do. And how he might get us all involved in a conflagration that no one wants."
The concerns are not theoretical musings or scare mongering, but anchored on the substantial body count from the recent past in and around our immediate neighbourhood.
The April 2001 Hainan Incident, which resulted when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a United States (US) Navy EP-3 electronic surveillance plane off Hainan - where China's strategic submarines are based - is one example.
The September 1983 downing of Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 Flight KAL 007 off Russia's Sakhalin island, after a Russian air defence fighter guided by confused GCI controllers in the dark went weapons free is another.
Farther afield, we have the July 1988 case of the US Navy Aegis cruiser, USS Vincennes, shooting down Iran Air Airbus A300 Flight 655 after mistaking the airliner for an incoming flight of Iranian F-14 Tomcat warplanes. The Vincennes, in its time one of the latest US Navy warships, had info fusion capabilities that were then state-of-the-art. But this did not prevent the slaughter of innocents.
Whether it's a military-to-military encounter, warplane versus airliner or warship versus airliner, the tragedies that unfolded are real and may be sadly replayed should push come to shove in regional air and sea lanes. What's sobering to note is the individuals involved in shooting down the Korean and Iranian airliners were never brought to justice - which is a point ADIZ missileers and PRC foreign ministry staffers may have pondered.
A more robust presence by China in the SCS in not a cause for alarm. But it is unquestionable that the region's strategic situation will be impacted, depending on the size, strength and longevity of Chinese military power sitting astride air and sea lanes that link Southeast Asia with key markets in North Asia.
What remains to be seen is if insurance underwriters can be similarly assured if and when China's naval ensign flies high in the SCS. Wasn't it not so long ago when Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore worked hard - collectively and energetically - to convince Lloyd's of London to remove the "War Risk" label for the Malacca Strait due to piracy/sea robber activity? We did so as this category would push up hull premiums and lead to higher shipping costs which, somewhere sometime downstream, would push up price tags for things we buy.
It is still some years away. Defence planners looking ahead must be aware that the current state-of-the-art - stealth warships or submarines - may be due for upgrading or replacement by 2030. What matters is the awareness that one should look beyond the immediate neighbourhood to factor in other players who can be expected to trail their coats off one's doorstep, in years to come.
Be that as it may, what is intriguing is the Chinese mindset that seeks to sweep aside and explain away regional concerns about its unilaterally declared ADIZ - air traffic has not been disrupted (true), it is within China's sovereign rights to do so (true) and that other nations have done so too (true).
It is not so much the rhetoric but more the intellectual intransigence in being able or willing to see the other side's point of view and bulldozing forth with one's perspective that points to the kind of future we can expect to see when the Red tide flows south.**
We can look further north than we're already used to, or we can sit tight and be totally blasé about regional geo-politics, only to wake up in 2030 to realise that the Singapore coastline pre-WW2 was better defended against warships than the city in the garden we're building together.
* This paragraph from The Straits Times report on the Global Outlook Forum is a case in point. An ST journalist theorised why the US flew B-52 bombers in the ADIZ:"He pointed out that the US chose B-52s - rather than, say, the F-35 stealth fighters - for the mission. B-52s are the biggest planes in the US fleet, he said, with the largest radar profiles, so the message from the US was that 'we want you to know', he said." (ST 30 Nov'13, page A8 'Top of the News')
With respect, the analysis is farcical. Had the US sent F-35 fighters with stealth features, the message would have been heard loud and clear not just in Beijing but around the world as the F-35s are not even in operational service. The journalist would have done nicely leaving it generically at "stealth fighters" without elaborating on type ("If unsure, leave it out" - Journalism 101). Or he could have mentioned F-22s, which have flown show-of-force missions in this region - and made paying participants at the forum feel they got their money's worth.
** Speaking of not being able to see the other side's point of view, the risks to flight safety when military flights take-off at their own whim and fancy without due regard to Air Traffic Control instructions was made apparent during the TNI's recent Angkasa Yudha war games. Indonesia's largest deployment of warplanes to Hang Nadim Airport in Batam came under the guidance from Changi Airport's ATC, as agreed by Indonesia as the airport's radar coverage is rudimentary. This blog is aware that some TNI flights took to the skies, destination Natunas, while ignoring instructions from Changi whose job was to ensure safe flight separation between commercial traffic and the TNI warplanes.